Although previously represented as an achievement crafted primarily by the actions the World Health Organization (WHO) and a small group of other key players, recent interpretations of the eradication of smallpox are dealing with this international cooperation and its players from different angle. Current historians are examining this achievement as one shaped not only by the mutual understanding for the need to end smallpox but also by international and local sociopolitical forces.
In his 1993 article, “Smallpox: Emergence, Global Spread and Eradication, “ Frank Fenner, a noted virologist and the Chairman of the Global Commission for Certification of Smallpox Eradication, explains the history and eventual destruction of the disease through the eyes of a scientist. For Fenner, the end of the disease lie in the creation of the Smallpox Eradication Programme (SEP), coordinated by WHO in Geneva Switzerland. Fenner acknowledges that countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas had been able to achieve country-wide elimination between 1959 and 1966, however, with a suggested eradication time frame of four to five years, WHO felt this pace would not suffice.
Subsequently, WHO created the SEP which focused primarily on those countries where endemic smallpox still existed: the Indian Subcontinent, the Horn of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. Fenner provides further biological and sociopolitical factors that he found played a role: the nature of the disease itself, advancement of strategies (improved vaccine quality and distribution), “earlier countrywide elimination in Europe and North America…no social or religious barriers to the recognition of cases...The costs of quarantine and the compulsory vaccination of international travelers provided strong financial incentive for the wealthy countries to support global eradication and thus eliminate its costs. The Smallpox Eradication Unit of WHO had inspiring leaders and recruited devoted health workers.” There is little mention of the international and regional sociopolitical roadblocks that WHO and individual governments dealt with on a regular basis. Unlike Fenner, it is primarily sociopolitical factors, both regionally and internationally, that guide twenty-first century historians in their interpretation of the events that led to the end of smallpox.
As explained by Fenner, by the mid-1960s, India remained a primary focus for the Smallpox Eradication Program. Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a well-known global health and medical historian, writes extensively on India and the challenges it presented for the SEP. In his article entitled, “Struggling to a monumental triumph: re-assessing the final phases of the smallpox eradication program in India, 1960-1980,” Bhattacharya argues that “historians and public health officials should recognize the varying roles played by a much wider range of participants.” He disagrees with interpretations that the project the view that smallpox eradication in...